For years Hollywood has teased us with fantasy versions of the future. They depict wild concepts such as flying cars, deep-space travel, and a common presence of artificial intelligence. Most days it seems like we are barely inching along towards our realization of many of those digital day-dreams. But as this blog post shall prove, smart-homes are becoming less movie-magic, and more reality than ever before.
Over a decade ago my folks built a home full of the latest in home lighting automation using Lutron Radio RA. Lutron is now on their second generation RA2, as they continue to supply this market segment with high quality options. The spectrum of home automation products has grown to include such items as window blinds/shades, smart thermostats, light bulbs, home security, motion sensors, cameras, smoke/fire detectors, and many other “intelligent/connected” products. All of these can be had with wired/wireless connectivity that go beyond the old, stand-alone products they once were.
For years I’ve wanted to dabble in the automated lighting arena, but always felt the costs were too prohibitive. It made sense for my folks, because the house was being custom built to their specifications. But to retrofit my 58 year old home never fit my budget, at least not for the level of quality I wanted from the products. For years there have been cheap options, but never ones that met with my relatively high expectations, especially when compared to my benchmark of the Lutron system down the road at the parents dwelling. Today that is no longer the case, with a plethora of cost-effective options to choose from.
NOTE: This is one of the more PICTURE-HEAVY blog posts that I’ve made. This was an attempt to help capture the essence of all the various iOS apps and give you, the reader, a better feeling of what the app felt like inside. As is always the case, feel free to click any photo here to view a LARGER version of that image. Enjoy!
UPDATE (DEC/2014)- After you finish reading this blog post, be sure to check out my FOLLOW-UP ARTICLE HERE!
UPDATE (OCT/2015)- And then when you’re done with that, be sure to check out my SMART LIGHTING COMPARISON POST!
UPDATE (NOV/2015)- As we head into the 2015 holiday season we’ve added a HUGE SMART HOME COMPARISON! – Check it out, everything from Apple HomeKit, to Samsung SmartThings, to Wink Connected Home Hub, and much, much more!
ABOUT MY TESTING & COMPARISONS
After years of running lamps on manual outlet timers I finally took my first step towards automation just over a year ago. By purchasing a set of Belkin WeMo Switch devices we found ourselves able to automate things like our fish tank lights, or a lamp in our living room. (See my in-depth WeMo review HERE) Although this kept me happy for over a year it has been hard for me to ignore all the new devices cropping up, as well as the lowering cost of entry to add more goodies to my arsenal.
So where we begin then is just that– an automated fish tank and lamp, and a desire for more. At the core of this was essentially two primary goals. First was the geek in me wanting to explore, test, and learn about the options available to consumers. Secondly was the more practical goal/need of wanting to ditch the existing lamp we had, and instead automate the fixed lights in that room. Any additional robotization in our home would be viewed as purely an added bonus.
Based on what I saw during my shopping at local big box stores it seems like there are four primary items that ring most popular in this growing niche. First and most obviously is lighting, primarily in smart bulbs, though increasingly so with in-wall switch options. Second would be smart thermostats, where some stores have dedicated displays now for units such as those from NEST and Honeywell. Third comes in the form of intelligent door locks, such as the Kwikset Kevo unit. And finally home security, ranging from cameras, to smoke alarms, to motion sensors, and even door open/close monitors. Other lesser options like automated window blinds and garage door openers exist (and I’ll talk more about those later), but aren’t as popular as these four groups.
SIDEBAR: When our old home thermostat gave up the ghost last year we upgraded to a NEST unit and have loved it ever since. So I guess you could say we’ve already had some home automation in place, though we use the schedule rather than home sensing, due to the “not so visible” placement of our unit (with regards to where we reside in the home). We also already have a wired alarm system that uses cellular service to communicate with a monitoring company. Sadly integrating other systems with that alarm are still in their infancy stages.
Below are the items tested, listed in order of purchase and review. Rather than lull you to sleep with more boring paragraphs of text (because trust me I could go ON and ON about these units)– I’ve decided to utilize an alternate method here. See below for bullet points that hit the key aspects of each unit, explaining the pros/cons in a more itemized list under each heading. I’ve included links at the end of each device to the item that was tested, so you can easily pick one up if you want to try it out for yourself. Enjoy!
- Started out last year with 2 plug-in outlets (Fish tank, living room lamp) (Old review HERE)
- Used for automatic (Sunrise/Sunet) fish lighting, and for morning/evening home illumination (auto on, auto off)
- Also worked nice for travel, being out of town, as it made things appear as if someone was home
- Previously attempted to add Belkin WeMo Light Switch, but unable to use (NO NEUTRAL WIRE in our older home switch boxes)
- Desire for additional home automation (lighting, etc) caused me to go shopping for new/additional items
- FINAL THOUGHTS: Belkin hardware covers a broad spectrum of home automation products, including their recently release of their new Belkin WEMO LED Lighting (bulbs). My first thought was to stay within the WeMo family, adding to my existing outlets. However since their in-wall switches require a neutral wire that my home wiring lacks it just couldn’t happen. Their new plug-in hub (for bulbs) has huge potential thanks to its small compact size. If you like things simple and easy, I’d start with Belkin, especially if you have newer home wiring that would allow these modern switches. Features and functions on these devices are good bang for your buck and come recommended if they’ll work for you.
- HARDWARE TESTED:
Philips Hue Bulbs & LED Strips
- Large range of smart bulb offerings including: Hue (Color), LUX (White), LED Strips (Color), and various other “friends of hue” goodies
- Although I found the color-picking aspect of their app to be strange, the app itself was quick, reliable, and overall never let me down. It supported “fade in/out” during scheduled events which was nice
- Hue bulbs require a small wired hub (included in the starter kits)
- Biggest downside here remains high cost of the color bulbs at $60 each for the colored units
- White LUX bulbs are competitive at $30, except when compared to new GE Link bulbs ($16)
- Although “smart bulbs” sound nice on paper, I quickly realized I wanted to replace light switches, not just bulbs, making this fun to play with by not the ultimate answer for my needs
- This lead me to being looking at a Hub that would aggregate both products (Philips + Belkin), plus whatever switches I would buy too
- Lastly, the lack of Sunrise/Sunset timing for the Philips Hue hub meant it wouldn’t be in sync with the fish tank controlled by the Belkin software
- FINAL THOUGHTS: There is room for Philips to enhance the UX a bit as it lacked some of the intuitive nature the competitors offered. And they may need to lower the prices to try to remain competitive in this fierce, growing market. Still, these are a good add-on to your home automation system but not all inclusive (just bulbs here). No outlets, no wall switches, just a spring-board to wanting more. I cannot in good faith recommend the Philips Hue when there are now cheaper options on the market, that integrate better with the hubs you will read about below. Philips makes a good product, but it just doesn’t play well enough with the other hubs/etc. And the color features are more a gimmick than anything. Reliable, quality product but more a toy than a true home automation product here.
- ITEMS TESTED:
Lutron Caseta – SWITCHES/DIMMERS (See later for hub testing)
- Lutron offers in-wall light switches that will work without a neutral wire (one of the few on the market) and also is self sensing (load vs line)
- Build quality is top notch, and it uses RF signal on Lutron’s Clear Connect protocols to communicate
- They also offer plug-in wall modules (for lamps) – These were perfect for our fish tank application– able to replace the WeMo so that all outlets AND swtiches were able to use one single protocol
- Personally I prefer in-wall switches over bulbs (like the Philips) — They are better because there is no need to leave your lights physically “switched on” — Also no worries that a visitor might accidentally turn the switch off and effectively discontinue your automation from working
- High entry cost at nearly $60 for each switch you need might make this hard for many to swallow/afford
- Lutron offers a hub that will control their Lutron Caseta devices but for $120 it is cost prohibitive compared to the Wink/Staples units — It is also limited to their Lutron Clear Connect protocols only (compatible bulbs are coming soon)
- At this point I contemplated buying the Lutron Hub ($120) but it only works on their protocols, so it would not work with the Philips Hue bulbs I wanted to try to keep if I could
- FINAL THOUGHTS: Industry leader in hardware, Lutron as a brand is a personal favorite. If all you care about are lighting and blinds, and you’re a Lutron fan, this is a good one-stop shop. But again, no bulbs (yet) — and no expansion for non-lighting products down the road that aren’t their own brand. Perhaps they will add more alliances in the future. Once their bulbs come out this unit can fight head-to-head against INSTEON for a closed environment choice. And as you’ll see later, the Lutron switches beat theirs. For this section I would give the switches/dimmers a top notch rating (see later for using them with their hub).
- HARDWARE TESTED:
- Spotted this sold along side of the Lutron switches, caught my eye and was a good price ($50)
- Compatible with a huge list of supported devices making the Wink hub one of the best, matched only by Staples Connect Hub and Revolv units for functionality
- Setup was simple, but I had issues getting the hub setup and to recognize the Lutron devices (took multiple attempts) — Tech support told me to avoid having the hub too close to your router during setup that can help
- Sidebar: Tech support was also aware of MANY bugs, which gave me a general feeling that while this device is powerful, it is certainly still not without a fair share of faults and growing pains right now
- Has built-in support for Bluetooth LE, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Lutron ClearConnect, and Kidde
- Worked with my Philips Hue, but note that it requires their hub is on the same local network as your hub, and control of the Philips Hue is limited
- Worked with my Lutron switches, which connect to the Wink with no extra hub required (very nice!)
- My Issue #1 – No Sunrise/Sunset provisions – This is something I need for the fish tanks & also desire elsewhere
- My Issue #2 – Shortcuts/Robots can NOT utilize the Philips Hue bulbs — You can turn them on manually, but you cannot automate them as part of a “scene” that you create
- To resolve the second issue I purchased some of the new GE Link Bulbs which worked flawlessly. They linked immediately and easily to the Wink hub, and allowed for dimming soft white light in my laundry room and near my TV
- From a standpoint of low-cost bulbs the $15 GE Link bulbs are the best option out there, but take note you need either a GE Link hub or a Wink hub to really get the most out of them (such as automation beyond just your phone)
- FINAL THOUGHTS: One of the longest list of compatible devices, enough radios to compete with the Revolv yet at 1/6th the price. Future NEST compatibility and this device may end up being the one to have! But for me the sunrise/sunset issue and the flaky setup caused me to keep looking. Additionally, it would miss light commands at times. This meant coming home to find the auto lights not turned on. Or coming home from work to find the auto-off in the morning didn’t run. OR even just sitting there with the iPhone app and tapping off and watching the light not react. For MOST people this is still my top pick of ALL the options out there, mainly because it brings the lowest cost plus the most compatibility to 3rd party items. If you want to aggregate a bunch of different units this is the best unit on the market (even after I did all my testing I kept this unit going because it was worth playing with and giving a chance to keep me content and fix some of the lag/bug issues)– probably the best unit for MOST users right here, or at least tied with the next unit on this list.
- HARDWARE TESTED:
Staples Connect Hub
- Current hub is made by Linksys (white) – A second generation unit from D-Link (black) is due out soon (now has been released and can be found HERE)
- Wireless protocols supported include Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee and Lutron, (Missing BT/Kidde when compared to Wink but those are rumored to be coming in the next generation unit)
- Out of all the units tested this one had the worst overall interface, but it was a bit more reliable than the Wink hardware
- Personally I hated the color-picker for Philips Hue bulbs (poor interface with 3 sliders and poor visual feedback on color)
- Loading the app was slow to connect to the hub both local and remotely at times compared to Wink
- Once setup you are able to move hub into a wireless mode, and avoid needing it plugged into router (bonus!) — (NOTE: If you need more network ports I suggest this unit from TP-LINK)
- Activities that start/end at a set time can only be set in 15-minute increments, not exact times of day
- However it did allow the coveted Sunrise/Sunset feature for automatic events, which I liked
- Another nice feature of the Staples Connect Hub is the web portal (LINK) which allows you functionality from your desktop, avoiding having to use your small phone when a larger screen might be in front of you
- FINAL THOUGHTS: From a feature standpoint, the Staples unit offered all the features I wanted. And the new 2nd generation unit will add more radios, giving it more compatible devices to match the Wink. It even proved to be more reliable of a device than the Wink. However, the poor user experience (iOS app) makes me suggest this second, and the Wink first. It just felt like this app was written “last year” — keep your eye on this, however. This unit and the Wink will most likely go head-to-head as the two best and most common hub aggregators moving forward. Once Staples updates their software UX to be a bit better, and the 2nd gen unit comes out, I’ll probably want to revisit this and the Wink for a shoot-out. This unit works, it just isn’t as “pretty” as it could be under the hood.
- HARDWARE TESTED:
Logitech Harmony Home Hub
- Fairly new to the market, this unit comes in two flavors (a remote with, or without, a display), and is geared to replace your TV remotes with a new remote that controls your lights AND TV/entertainment system
- Only 3rd party switches it supports at this time are the Lutron, but the big issue there is that it requires their Hub (another $120, and another Ethernet port gets tied up)
- Added integration with my NEST thermostat but lacks the ability to set it to Home/Away (only able to adjust temperature, or make it so auto-away never happens while sitting still watching TV)
- Due to the cost of this unit (starts at $150 with basic remote) plus the Lutron hub needed for me ($120) it was a no-go, since at that price point the Revolv makes more sense ($299) which adds more benefits/features (although the Revolv doesn’t yet support the Lutron switches, but other options exist for me as you’ll see below)
- At this point I returned the Philips Hue bulbs and was at a cross-roads as that left me with only Lutron hardware. But before I would test their hub, I had other things to check out and compare.
- FINAL THOUGHTS: I’ve always loved Logitech for their Harmony remote series. And in that capacity I liked their attempt to tie in the home lighting with your TV. However, I was not a huge fan of the “style” of the interface (it is definitely focused on TV/entertainment system users). Again overall a good attempt, but very limited list of compatible devices at this time for starters. Given Logitech at the helm this device has potential, but at this juncture it just isn’t anything to get excited about quite yet. Perhaps down the road… and again for MY needs, this fell short.
- Insteon’s hub uses their own dual-band protocols, but luckily there are a lot of options (SmartHome.com) — Still they are like Lutron, have painted themselves in a corner a bit with not using Bluetooth, WiFi, or even the more common standards already out there
- Software interface is one of the better ones, on par with the Wink app for stylishness and simplicity– It lacks frills, but in a way I found pleasant — From a UX standpoint the Wink and Insteon at this point during my testing were my two favorites
- NEST Thermostat support is listed and enabled, but sadly I was unable to successfully login/connect my NEST to the INSTEON hub during my testing (tech support claimed they never heard of the issue I had getting it to log into my NEST account)
- INSTEON offers bulbs that are on-par in both price and features of Philips Lux (white & dimmable) though still more expensive than the new comer GE Link
- You can group items by room, but you cannot switch an entire room on/off (this is due to the fact that you can place items in a room that are not on/off light-based devices– such as cameras, motion sensors, etc)
- Supports the Sunrise/Sunset option for automation that I desire, as well as allows you to set how quickly lights will fade on/off in that scene (adds ambiance) (similar to Philips Hue fading features)
- Like many of the other hubs it still lacks the location based (geo fencing) option that Wink & Revolv offer
- Although they offer two-wire (non-neutral) switches like Lutron the quality didn’t seem as good– worse yet, the specs are sub-par as they only support incandescent bulbs which is silly in a world of CFL and LED bulbs
- Testing the switches they worked with one set of LED bulbs (in one room) fine, though dimming performance wasn’t great. Then in the 2nd and 3rd rooms I tested with other style/brand LEDs they didn’t work. In one room the bulb would never go off entirely with a glow even when off. And in the other room the bulbs, when on, flashed constantly. Swapping in a CFL the same blinking/strobe issue occurred– only fixed by going to an old incandescent I had laying around. For me this was unacceptable, and again the Lutron switches had worked perfectly in these same rooms, with these same bulbs.
- FINAL THOUGHTS: With INSTEON you become limited to their unique dual-band protocols, though many other hubs support their devices should you wish to expand down the road (ie: Revolv, and eventually Staples Connect Hub). There are plenty of cool options out there for garage door openers, irrigation systems, and so forth. But most are not as good as those devices who use whatever protocol they choose (ie: Rachio or Chamberlain that utilize WiFi). And seeing as the in-wall switches didn’t work I can’t really suggest INSTEON– but your results may be better. Overall I felt like INSTEON hardware was good for someone with a hands-on approach– but it failed to be a turn-key setup.
- HARDWARE TESTED:
Lutron Caseta – HUB
- At this point I had returned everything except for all my Lutron switches/dimmers, my GE Link bulbs, and the Wink hub
- Additionally, I purchased a Chamberlain MyQ garage door opener to play with (LOVE IT!), as well as a Rachio IRO Smart Wifi Enabled Irrigation Controller (see my initial thoughts on those two devices HERE)
- Although the Wink was compatible with all of the items noted here, the Sunrise/Sunset provisions were still missing, the system was often slow/lagged when turning lights off/on, the interface needs a bit more polishing, there are some force close issues (iOS 8 – Activity button), and other odds/ends that made me wonder if going to a fully closed Lutron system wouldn’t be better for me – Hence the testing of this hub here
- Setup was quick and easy, and connecting lights was a faster affair than with Wink (and more flawless)
- Subsequently the operation of the lights to flip on/off was faster too — There is a 2-3 second delay on the Wink, versus a less than 1-second reaction times from the Lutron iOS app
- Although the software here is nice, it lacks the feature set and depth of functionality that the Wink and INSTEON offered. It was similar in that regard to the Philips Hue, although the interface here was far more intuitive than the Philips one
- FINAL THOUGHTS: Reliability here was great, with lights always performing as expected, no missed scheduled events during my testing, and generally speaking it just was a nice overall experience to use the Lutron Caseta app, even though it lacked the frills the others offer. It supports the switches I have in place, and allows me to do what I want with my lighting. Once the GE telligent bulbs are released it will do at a core level everything I want. However with no integration with other 3rd party devices (thermostat, alarm systems, etc) it really is just for home lighting, blinds/shades, and not much more. Where the Philips Hue was the best for just bulbs, this is the best for just switches.
- HARDWARE TESTED:
Let me remind you that what works for me MAY NOT WORK FOR YOU! If you desire a single app that controls all of your devices, and if your list of connected goodies at home varies from mine, you may find a better match. For example, the Wink & Staples hubs both work with the Lutron Caseta hardware, but the Revolv and SmartThings hubs do not yet. Only some of the units support NEST (some unofficially, with more official integrations being added swiftly). And only about half of them work with geo fencing features at this time. (Even the Wink which offers it rarely works right).
And let’s not forget that the Apple HomeKit is coming, which may in some ways eliminate people’s desires for a smart hub. My understanding of the HomeKit, however, is simply an easy way to control devices from your iOS product. In iOS 8 you can already ask Siri to close your garage door and it’ll tell you no HomeKit link exists (yet). Though you’ll be able to control devices on a discreet basis, you will still need a central hub to automate and schedule things based on each individual device. In this case I feel like the units, such as the Wink, Staples Connect Hub and Revolv, may compliment the Apple integration. Google and Samsung are also pushing hard for more software and hardware in this segment.
So in the end it comes down to three basic questions. First off, what hardware do you want to automate in your home. Secondly, what brand of those devices do you want (all the same, or many different ones). And finally, do you want to be able to tie them in to work together? If the answer is yes to that final question, then figure out what hardware you want and find a hub that works with those. If all your hardware is a single brand, the manufacturer’s hub may work fine (ie: all you want are smart bulbs then Philips, or just switches and eventually GE bulbs, go Lutron). Chances are you’ll find yourself wanting multiple devices, from various brands, and in that case the Wink Connected Home Hub is my top choice, followed closely by the Staples Connect Hub. If you just want to do light switches, the Lutron Caseta Smart Bridge and accessories are my favorite from my testing time.
Remember that even with a hub to aggregate your smart devices, in most cases the app from the manufacturer won’t be something you can just delete. It will still offer a richer deeper experience that you’ll need (such as setting up your thermostat schedule, or fine-tuning your irrigation system). Having a hub that aggregates your devices isn’t just about having one application to run, it is actually more about being able to have them talk to and work with each other. So that when you leave your house the lights automatically switch off. Or when your fire alarm is triggered, all your lights turn on. Or when a door sensor is tripped, a camera starts recording who entered.
Just like in a Hollywood movie, the goal here is artificial intelligence, by way of devices interconnecting (and a smart brain/hub). All these devices that were once just appliances in our homes have become connected members of a larger family. The hope is that the future is smarter, more connected, and easier for us to get on living our lives. I’m excited for what is around the corner, aren’t you?